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Mental Health

Foundation #1: Maximizing Brain Health and Function

Dr. John Palmer

This is the first of the five foundations of health. Your brain is the command center, the keeper of memory, the processor of data. It senses, understands, refines, and decides. Our brains are amazing and mysterious. Keeping your brain healthy is the ultimate goal and many different components affect it.The best way to improve brain health is to give it mental stimulation. The brain is always growing, adapting, and rewiring by growing new neurons. As we age, it’s common to experience loss of memory or fine-motor skills. Most age-related memory and motor-skill loss are from lack of brain exercise. Just like any other organ, you have to exercise it to gain knowledge. The brain then associates the knowledge gained with existing knowledge by connecting more neurons to it. The more you practice a skill, the more your brain will grow. The key to improving brain health is to choose an activity that is enjoyable to you. The best way to get results is to plan a “you time” routine. This is not Netflix binge time; this is not scrolling on Facebook and Instagram time. This is planned time, set aside for learning new things! Be endlessly curious. Jump down the rabbit hole, geek out, and challenge yourself on something you have been wanting to try. In the Friends and Family Health Centers clinic, we encourage our patients to start gradually with any new endeavors. Gaining your health is a marathon, not a sprint. Plan to engage in 5-10 minutes of reading, learning a new language, or meditating immediately before or after other healthy activities, like exercising. A quote that always resonates with me in moments of taking on something new is by Teddy Roosevelt, who accomplished so much both personally and professionally: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I like this quote because it gives you no room to excuse yourself from starting something new. Focus on small wins at the beginning. Small wins add up to BIG wins. Be patient with yourself. The following is a list of ways to improve your brain health. Choose one and do it for five minutes a day for 21 days. Let me know how it works for you!So, what are you going to do to improve and maintain your brain health? What are you going to geek out on? Here are 10 ways you can get started on improving brain function:

  1. Learning a new skill has been shown to be the most effective way to slow cognitive aging.
  1. Meditate (Headspace app is great to begin with). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation, according to a 2007 study.
  1. Get some sleep! Dr. Itzhak Fried says that a lack of sleep impairs a range of mental functions, including misfiring neurons. Lack of sleep also increases risks of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and stroke.
  1. Weight training improves cognition for up to 12 months, according to a 2014 study.
  1. Playing chess significantly lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Chess also increases the ability to recognize patterns, among numerous other ways to boost your brain.
  1. Do crosswords to learn new words, engage you deeply, practice solving problems, and to engage your need to be creative. Crossword puzzles can improve working memory, which is the ability to remember and retrieve information while distracted.
  1. In a 2016 study, learning a new language was proved to improve alertness in 18-78-year-olds in Scotland. A 2014 study showed it slows cognitive decline related to age.
  1. Purposely use your non-dominant hand. Just like exercising your body to grow your muscles and improve function, choosing to use your opposite hand will make existing neural connections and grow new ones.
  1. Write every day. A great book that really helped me is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I am by no means a master writer, but I find it to be a mind-clearing device that works beautifully.
  1. Learn to draw, paint, or sketch. This is an intimidating skill to take on because we, as humans, see so many finished products of amazing art and think to ourselves “oh I never could do that,” while thinking about our few feeble attempts to really try.

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